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Flooring Trends Can Create 'Wow' Effect

Understand the top flooring trends and techniques to create a "wow" effect for your facility's design, no matter what your budget.

Fitness center design is starting to show more character, and flooring can play a major role. Whether you're designing a new facility, or redesigning an existing one, never underestimate the impact that flooring can have in terms of aesthetics, sustainability and bio-friendliness.

Top design trends

The first step when considering any flooring project is knowing what the trends are. Facility designers strongly agree that the most important trend today is economic friendliness. "The 'green' component has become a big part of the equation when selecting the appropriate flooring," says Rudy Fabiano, president of Fabiano Designs, an architecture and design firm for the industry based in Montclair, N.J.

The problem with flooring, however, is that, over the years, the environment has taken a backseat to science and technology. "To make our lives easier, more convenient, more productive, more comfortable and more healthy, we are now learning that so many of these products developed for fitness facilities - facilities built to enhance our health and well-being - have been delivering just the opposite," says Donald DeMars, chairman and CEO of Donald DeMars International, West Hills, Calif., an architecture and interior design firm specializing in the fitness industry. And, while flooring must be practical, affordable and meet the specific program needs, adds DeMars, it must also be safe.

How, exactly, have flooring products been found to be unsafe? According to DeMars, it has been found that adhesives used to glue flooring down release a wide range of odorous and hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs). "Poly vinyl chloride (PVC), the current dominant material, also releases semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) called phthalates, [which are] used to make the PVC flexible," DeMars says. In addition, he says, some petroleum-based or petroleum-coated flooring is covered with a protective wax or urethane coating that needs to be regularly stripped and replaced - a process that is both disruptive to the facility's members, and one that releases VOCs and other highly toxic chemicals into the space. In sync with the trend to "go green," then, the industry is moving away from the highly volatile, petroleum-based products, says DeMars, because of their health concerns, and moving toward bio-based and ecologically friendly flooring.

Of equal importance to member safety is the flooring's aesthetics, functionality and durability. Says Fabiano, "Many new and innovative products have the durability, flexibility and look that can now be considered as an appropriate alternative to rubber."

Types of flooring

There are now a host of choices for resilient, attractive and safe flooring, says DeMars. Following are some to consider:

Making 'Green' Flooring Choices

Choosing to "go green" with your facility's flooring is one of the most important decisions you will make during the design or redesign process. Donald DeMars, CEO of Donald DeMars International, an architectural firm specializing in the fitness industry, recommends that fitness facility operators consider all of the alternatives, read labels and, above all, be informed on the choices available. Specifically, he recommends the following when considering the environment:
  • Seek the most stringent labels (see indoor air quality labels).
  • Request that flooring contractors use only water-based, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) adhesives.
  • Screen all of your options to avoid PVC, HFRs, styrene utadiene rubber (SB), latex, Teflon compounds (and other perflourocarbons) and anti-microbial treatments.
  • Seek high post-consumer recycled content in your flooring choices, avoiding PVC and completely closed-loop recycled products.
  • Seek bio-based content and manufacturers who take full responsibility for end-of-life recycling.

Cork. A bio-based material that is harvested from living cork oak trees, cork is extremely durable, has a long wear life, requires no stripping or waxing, and requires little maintenance. However, warns DeMars, cork should only be sealed with water-based vinyl sealers with no VOCs.

Linoleum. Linoleum is a bio-based material that is available in tiles and sheets, is made from flax, linseed oil, wood flour, natural pine resins and natural colorants, is anti-static and anti-bacterial, has a long wear life, requires minimal maintenance, and requires no stripping or waxing. Linoleum shouldn't be used in wet areas, though, as it is "rapidly renewable and can decompose in a dump," says DeMars.

Terrazzo. Terrazzo could be called the original recycled flooring because it was historically made of marble chips that were a byproduct of the stone-cutting trade. The flooring is now composed of naturally occurring aggregates, recycled glass and plastic, oyster shells, and either processed cement or an epoxy binder, says DeMars. It is extremely durable and sustainable, and typically lasts the life of the structure in which it is placed.

Acid-etched concrete. This inexpensive, durable flooring is easy to maintain and conductive to any design.

Wood (including bamboo). Typically used in athletic and fitness flooring, wood and bamboo are available backed by rubber sleepers, steel springs, foam rubber and other materials.

Tile. Tile is another naturally occurring aggregate-based material, and is adhered with other naturally occurring aggregates.

Rubber. Both virgin and recycled rubber sheets and tiles are antibacterial, mildew-, mold- and rot-resistant, and have a long wear life. However, says DeMars, rubber can differ widely, with some being no wax/no strip, while others require wax, as well as some emitting VOCs and odors, while others are clean.

Carpet. And, of course, don't forget about carpet.

Techniques that "wow"

A variety of options exist to create a more exciting look with flooring. These include using various color palettes, adding logos or artwork, and combining different flooring materials in various patterns.

When considering color, Fabiano says that colors and patterns should be chosen based on the "feel" being created, along with your facility's demographics.

The good news is that "many of the synthetic and rubber exercise flooring companies are starting to expand the colors that they offer in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack, and [because of] designers' demands for a larger offering of colors," says Christell Kee, senior interior designer at Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, a Denver, Colo.-based architecture firm focusing on fitness, recreation, sports and aquatics facilities. And, says Kee, while color palettes in the exercise flooring industry don't change as quickly as in the fashion industry, she is seeing a lot more oranges, olive greens, really dark browns and gray/blues being used.

On the other hand, "bright colors, even though they will give a 'pop' of color, can be high-maintenance," says Fabiano. It's better to stay with more muted colors and avoid primary colors that can be jarring and unsettling. However, do be sure to use color to its full effect. "Too often, club [operators] are afraid of color, for fear someone will be offended by it," says Kee. "Maybe someone will, but the majority will find it interesting and exciting. Club owners sometimes think that they need to play it safe, but all too often end up with a 'vanilla' color palette that makes no statement at all and is just boring."

Other than the use of colors, the way to make a flooring statement is by using logos and artwork. "Logos and artwork in flooring are something being used more in fitness centers," says Kee. "Putting your logo or artwork on the floor is an easy way to get your clients to notice it, and makes a real impact in a room." The use of logos and artwork, of course, will depend on the type of flooring material you are using. "Certain flooring products, such as vinyl and rubber, are fairly easy to cut artwork into using different colors of that product," Kee says. And, "wood floors in group exercise rooms can also have artwork or a logo painted on the floor, which instantly makes the room more colorful and exciting to be in." Fabiano suggests placing logos under Smith or crossover equipment. And, DeMars recommends wood for painted stripes and logos, and tile for simple lines, stylized or photo-realistic designs by hand painting, laser-cutting and photo transfer, or even mixed glass mosaics.

The key is to make these options work with the programming of the space, says Fabiano. For instance, he says, "for personal training, a wood look with a cushion back or even cork ... creates a comfortable environment." This, as well as bamboo, can also work for a circuit-training area.

Bamboo wood flooring is being used in places many wouldn't suspect, says Kee, such as gymnasium floors. "However, places that we see bamboo being used most are often mind/body studios where yoga and Pilates are practiced," says Kee. "The more Asian/eastern look of a bamboo floor works well with the quiet zen-like atmosphere associated with these types of exercises."

For selectorized areas, Fabiano suggests using carpet, wood or stained concrete. And, in the right area, carpet and cork are also great for acoustics. "We consider sound an 'audible aesthetic,' [so we] select sound-sedating flooring products," Fabiano says.

By combining flooring materials and different colors in exercise areas, some great "wow" effects can be generated. For example, says Kee, "at the Tri-City Medical Wellness Center in Carlsbad, Calif. (which is currently being built), I specified a bamboo flooring with a dark ebony black finish on it. This is not the usual clear finish or lightly stained bamboo floor that you tend to see in yoga rooms. The black is dramatic and works well with the orangish-red accent color, and soft greens of the walls. There are large windows all around that let in plenty of light, so the room doesn't seem too dark."

When designing Villa Sport in Colorado Springs, Colo., Kee used two different types of woods with different wood stains to create a pattern effect on the floor. And, when designing the Trails Recreation Center in Centennial, Colo., which has a pioneer theme and is located in a historically Native American location, she designed a pattern on the large group exercise floor that looked like an Arapahoe Indian rug painted onto the wood.

Some additional suggestions by Fabiano include locating a stunning wood walnut look for functional training in the midst of circuit equipment that is traditionally on rubber, and combining a mixture of flooring and carpet on cardio decks. "These areas create an oasis, and market the fitness program well," says Fabiano.

You get what you pay for

The old expression, "You get what you pay for," is another key flooring consideration. "One thing I have learned from some of the best developers in the world is this: Quality is the only choice that makes sense," says DeMars. "Attempting to save a few bucks in the short term usually ends up costing you more in the long run."

But budgets are a reality. For those with limited budgets, facility operators will be pleased to know that "there are lots of alternative products with an amazing array of pattern, color and texture," says Fabiano. And while flooring is one place where replacement can be costly, he suggests taking risks only where they can be afforded. For example, on a lower-budget project, Fabiano's company inlaid a strip of striped wood directly next to stained concrete to "give rich warmth on a budget." Another low-cost strategy would be to use a contrasting or coordinating color between workout and common areas, or under dumbbell racks and free weight benches.

"If you're designing on a medium or low budget, as most clubs are," says Kee, "keep in mind that a little can sometimes go a long way." For instance, she says, if you can only afford to do something different in one place, make sure it's the most high-profile area of the facility. "Entrance lobbies or a group exercise room that is seen from many areas of the club would be the best places to spend money on floor artwork/logos or a more expensive flooring finish," she says. "Sometimes, too, you can use fairly simple forms to make a flooring finish seem nicer. You could do simple bands of color change in a flooring finish that is seen from a second floor overlook for a dramatic effect." Or, she says, using an unusual color from a manufacturer's standard color selection may add little or no cost. "Why not have a bright orange running track?"

Of course, if the sky is the limit and you can dream it up, says Kee, then it can probably be done.

The impact of the floor

There's a lot of competition out there. And, "with all the new clubs sprouting up everywhere, the facilities that take chances with their designs are the ones that will attract new members," says Kee. The key is to think green, be sure the flooring is appropriate to the exercise environment, be extra creative and don't cut too many corners.

"Of all of the design and product considerations involved in developing and operating a fitness center, flooring is the one item you can't afford to compromise on," says DeMars.
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